Michelle Avenant
Michelle Avenant

#IAmStellenbosch and the quiet violence of the ‘colour blind’

Hanging in an office at my old school is a yellowed newspaper article titled “School for the colour blind!” featuring photographs of children of different races laughing and playing cricket together.

It was 1981 — three years after the small, independent school started admitting learners of all races despite apartheid norms — and to the Sunday Tribune journalist observing “an island of racial harmony in South Africa’s apartheid-torn society”, the term “colour blind” probably signalled a utopian future quite different to the South Africa in which it is used today.

While at a progressive school in 1981, “colour blind” referred to a relative lack of perceived racial barriers, at Stellenbosch University (and throughout South Africa) in 2015, it is used to deny these barriers’ continued existence and refuse to engage in breaking them down.

The release of Luister — a documentary film reflecting on pervasive institutional and cultural racism at Stellenbosch University — has been met with a thousands-strong backlash of militant “positivity” from Stellenbosch students.

“Remember, if you don’t have something nice to say, just don’t say it at all J” read the event page of September’s #whereisthelove protest, which aimed to “put an end to this destruction and negativity” engendered by marginalised students calling for a more linguistically, culturally and racially inclusive university.

The latest Pollyanna in this positivity parade is the #IAmStellenbosch movement, which this weekend published a photo campaign inviting students to “break down a stereotype”, and featured a significant number of white students proclaiming they were “colour blind”, “kleurblind” or “not a racist!”

IAmStellenbosch_1a

At a time when nationwide student protests are highlighting social and structural racism that has persisted at universities for decades after the abolishment of apartheid laws, claiming racial “colour blindness” is not a utopian political statement but a refusal to consider or acknowledge one’s own responsibility in addressing racism. It is now clear we each play a personal role in racism, which will not go away on its own no matter how politely we smile at one another. “Racism is not my problem!” the “colour blind” seem to say.

To (allegedly) ignore racial difference is also to refuse to acknowledge the different experiences and backgrounds others have due to their race: to hide behind “colour blindness” is to be adamantly ignorant of racial inequality.

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

Furthermore, congratulating “colour blindness” carries the sinister implication that colour — ie, any racial identity outside of the sanctity of whiteness within which the term “colour blind” is popularised — is something one must “see past”, as though it is inherently negative or unsightly, rather than something around which to build a proud and celebrated identity. In this way, “colour blindness” as an ideal attempts to speak over the myriad of marginalised racial identities people of colour are moving to reclaim and reinscribe.

#IAmStellenbosch and movements like it seek to silence consideration of race and racial inequality, all in the name of preserving a “positivity” that vilifies those who speak out against these movements for killing their “lekker vibes”.

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

#IAmStellenbosch itself aims to placate the student body by presenting a trivialised view of racism as a simple issue of misinformation, which can be swiftly cleared up with a generic photo campaign vaguely addressing stereotypes, while conflating the trifling variances of white identity (“I am 100% Afrikaans and we don’t farm”) with the urgent concerns of navigating a white space as a person of colour (“I feel like a complete OUTSIDER”, reads one black participant’s image).

Michelle Avenant

Michelle Avenant

Saving face with Facebook likes in the short term, faux-friendly “colour blindness” and the reductionist view of racism it engenders will achieve little in the long term but another 20 years of inadequate transformation. Stellenbosch is not the only institution for which this is true.

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  • #IAmStellenbosch: ‘I am colour-blind and I can see colour’